War with China? California secession? My readers write.
I have an excellent selection of reader letters today.
First, Adam Garfinkle, editor emeritus of The American Interest, sends us the email below, from Singapore.
Come the Whirlwind
Think the US Federal government screwed up the response to the Covid-19 pandemic, revealing shortcomings many years in the making? Think the President’s behavior has made him the laughing stock of the known world, but that he may well get reelected anyway? Think the Chinese government, despite its lying and its clumsy public relations stunts, is apt to come out of the viral haze with a significant net advantage? Well you’re right to fret about all that, but wait for the silver lining … wait … wait: That is the silver lining, compared to what autumn may bring.
Only fools and unreconstructed idealists think that when things are bad they cannot get worse. They can, and often do, for the simple reason that waves of irrationality and bad luck are not by nature self-limiting. In that cheerful light, consider this scenario.
During the coming summer, the hardest-hit areas of the world gradually ease their way out of danger. Infection curves flatten. More remote areas of the planet mercifully escape cataclysmic Covid-19 ravages. Economies begin to revive, unemployment and related economic hardships begin the trek back toward normal, and a general sense prevails that the worst is over.
The Trump reelection campaign takes credit for a great success and focuses its message on a “blame China” theme. The Big Lie that the virus came out of the Wuhan bat research lab, and the Bigger Lie that it was man-made, become staple campaign talking points. What worked well enough with the Trumpenproletariat shard of the electorate before—inventing out of whole cloth the misdirection that it was the Ukrainians who tried to hack the November 2016 election in favor of the Democrats, instead of the Russians hacking it in favor of Trump—appears to be working again. Even the completely fabricated claim that Barack Obama illegally directed a surveillance operation against the 2016 Trump campaign, an antique insinuation left to lie fallow for three and half years, has legs. Just as 2016 saw the successful scapegoating of mainly Latino immigrants, now the target is East Asians. Hate crimes against ethnic Chinese rise as the summer heat bears down.
Then, as some models are projecting, an early September cold snap brings the Covid-19 beast back just as the normal flu season begins. During the warmer weather, Americans let their guard down on social distancing and masks—and bang, we have a big new public health emergency. This would conform to the pattern we saw when the bad winter of 1918 became a hopeful spring and summer, then a disastrous autumn and early winter of 1919.
We tried to gear up production of personal protection equipment and ventilators, and we tried to devise effective treatments and find a vaccine, but the White House discouraged cooperation with other countries, and time runs out on mostly unpracticed and underprepared state and local governments. The federal government’s efforts to get ahead of the problem are stymied by its chronic bureaucratic and administrative sclerosis, worsened by the the White House’s persistent politicization.
By mid-October, the US death toll approaches 310,000. Trump denies the numbers and blames the Deep State for the rise in infections and deaths, obliquely implying that Democratic sympathizers in the government, trying to sabotage his campaign, are to blame.
China, too, suddenly faces massive reinfection, both from local cases and from North Korea into Jilin Province, despite scarce border traffic. President Xi Jinping finds himself under virtual political siege. With each day, his political weakness becomes more obvious to his slighted rivals. Meanwhile, rabid Wolf Milk nationalists cause chaos in the manner of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution: Insisting the CIA deliberately re-infected China to prevent China from accruing the reputational advantage it deserves for its handling of the pandemic, they demand decisive action.
On October 17, 2020, an accident occurs during a routine US Navy freedom-of-navigation operation in the South China Sea, in international waters near Palawan Island. Half a dozen US sailors are killed and two dozen are injured. Some reports attribute the incident to renegade anti-Xi elements in the PLA Navy, but the Trump White House blames President Xi and demands an apology. Xi does not offer one.
Within a week, US and Chinese naval forces are shooting at each other across a swath of ocean near China’s littoral. The US Navy, demonstrating the consequences of years of poor maintenance for its ships and aircraft and a corrupt acquisition process, fails clearly to get the better of the fight. Chinese YJ-19 anti-ship missiles, along with newly-deployed UAVs and submersible drones, exact a harrowing toll. The White House orders naval air attacks against anti-ship missile batteries on Chinese soil. Escalation seems inevitable, but not a US victory.
On October 24, a preternaturally quiet Russian President Vladimir Putin takes advantage of American and Chinese distraction to send significant numbers of “little green men” across Russia’s border with Latvia, claiming a need to protect Russian speakers from Latvian fascist thugs. Having much earlier fortified Kaliningrad, Gogland Island, and the Suwalki Gap, Putin has been preparing such a tentative attack for months.
Putin has already succeeded in suborning Russian politics to his benefit. He has vivisected the European Union, diminishing its international power and unity, in part by turning more than a million Syrian refugees into political weapons in the autumn of 2015. He now sees the ultimate goal of the time-honored Soviet-era KGB hat trick in reach: stunning NATO into irrelevance and collapse. He reasons that his chances will never be better, since Trump will soon be gone from the White House.
Putin reasons correctly. Trump does not condemn the Russian invasion. The rest of the alliance fails to summon any significant common response. Poland leads the effort, but the German Russland verstehen big business factions resist a weak, new, post-Merkel Bundeskanzler. The Turkish government, in Russia’s pocket because of leverage Russia holds in the protracted Idlib crisis, foils every attempt.
Trump then uses the war and health crises as a pretext to “postpone” the November election, which polls show he’s going to lose. Most Republican governors say they will obey. Democratic governors unanimously refuse. Some Republican state chairmen encourage Republican voters in states with Democratic governors to boycott the polling.
Meanwhile, the fight with China widens. The 7th Fleet, with aid from USAF bombers based in CONUS, has sunk virtually the whole Chinese surface navy. But on November 1, the Chinese PLA Navy attacks a US aircraft carrier, with major loss of life. The political optics of the carrier disaster are terrible in the days before the United States—or half of it, anyway—is scheduled to vote. Trump orders a nuclear weapons attack against five Chinese cities. Reports of China moving to nuclear launch alert status are unverified and uncertain.
The Secretary of Defense doesn’t know what to do. DOD lawyers split over whether the President’s order is illegal, since no NSC meeting has been held to debate it and no declaration of war has been requested or granted. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, which have no line authority in the US system over the military chain of command, demand to speak to the President to persuade him to remand the order. Trump refuses to see them. He repeatedly addresses the nation from the Oval Office. All the major commercial media outlets, as usual, fawn over him for the sake of market share.
Rumors of invoking of the 25th Amendment bubble up as the President’s behavior grows even more alarmingly bizarre and his speech becomes even more frequently and noticeably slurred. Signs that Trump may have suffered a mild stroke catalyze furious disagreement. Vice President Pence is still too debilitated from Covid-19 to take over. Republicans and their supporters refuse even to consider allowing power to pass, as the Constitution instructs, to the Speaker of the House.
The President’s supporters then claim to have uncovered plans for a military coup. Scattered organized violence erupts in more than a dozen major cities between pro-Trump “Liberty Militias” and impromptu platoons of Antifa and assorted anarchist groups. Many Democratic and Republican governors call out their National Guards to quell the disturbances, but Guard commanders split over which rioting groups to quell, or quell first.
Gun sales, petty crime, and urban looting skyrocket.
The Estonian, Lithuanian, and Belarusian regimes succumb to indirect Russian control.
The still-young Israeli coalition government hastily annexes most of the West Bank. Anti-Semitism, already rising, acquires boost-phase energy, showing up in all the expected and many unexpected places.
Rolling chaos erupts in Beijing and other major Chinese cities as PLA units seize several local and two provincial government offices.
And then Kim Jong-un ...
My purpose in laying out this scenario is not to audition for prophet of doom. There’s no day-job prospect in that (and I do need a day-job). It’s to encourage a rehearsal of an improbable—but not impossible—perfect storm so that relevant minds become nimbler and better attuned to prevent it. It is therefore not meant as a point prediction, but a tool for a heuristic planning exercise, a provocation to be interrogated, to wit: Where are the clear logical flaws in the causal sequence laid out above?
Let me know when you find them, please.
Adam Garfinkle, founding editor of The American Interest, is a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
I recently discussed my pseudonymous correspondent Bilibin’s assertion that the the European Union was dead, an argument he began by noting the EU’s failure to prevent the secession of one of its largest constituent states.
Several readers wrote immediately to suggest I was focusing on the wrong geopolitical entity.
Here’s one such letter, from a correspondent at the heart of the Deep State, who decided reluctantly it was best he remain anonymous.
Greetings from DC and work-from-home land. Enjoyed your discussion of Europe and the HCA. Perhaps it’s time to turn your attention from the breakup of Europe to the breakup of the US.
It has long been clear (at least to me) that another Trump minority victory would (or at least should) lead to strong secessionist movements in the northeast (United Atlantic States; first president: Bernie Sanders) and the West Coast (California and friends; first president: Kamala Harris or Arnold Schwarzenegger).
The argument, basically, is that minority rule can only work if the President hews to the center, and if there are strong institutions and behavioral norms that ensure continued cohesion—things like rule of law, some level of fiscal equalization (as was helped by the deduction of state taxes), and at least an attempt to craft a common national story. Obviously, we are growing further and further from any of that. As the Financial Times put it, “In a country with no ethnic or religious basis, equal subjection to the law is the stuff of nationhood.” That’s the kind of “stuff” that Barr has barred. As that editorial points out, this is hard to rebuild. The glue that holds the country together is dried, cracked, and all but disintegrated.
The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted not only the cultural divides between urban and non-urban, science believers and “true” believers, but also the democracy gap, wherein 45 percent or less of the population holds 53 percent of the Senate. It is not incidental that a state or region that secedes could implement border controls to keep out folks from regions that have not instituted adequate test-and-trace regimes. Nor that a minority of the population, led by a Kentucky Kracker, is choosing the unqualified
judges who will preside over the rest of us.
But more to the point, Republicans have long been blunt that if everyone could vote, Republicans would lose. So their main task with respect to “democracy” is gerrymandering and voter suppression (see, e.g., the Wisconsin elections, D.C. statehood, Georgia voting rolls, and mail-in votes).
Now, with Republican senators basically coming out against support for hard-hit states and cities because they vote Democrat, the pocketbook cost to the Northeast and West Coast regions of being part of the US becomes ever-clearer. Implementing Hamilton’s plan to nationalize the states’ debts was a key factor not only in making the new country investible but in demonstrating a shared destiny. Refusing to share the burden of the pandemic unlearns that early lesson in nation building. (Note to Rick
Scott: Maybe funds for hurricane recovery should be limited because they mostly go to Red States ... )
I had thought before it would take a Trump re-election by a minority to demonstrate how broken the system was, and that secession would be the only recourse (unless threats of secession resulted in a fix—but that didn’t happen in Europe, did it). But we now have conclusive demonstrations outside the electoral college, be they politicized justice and judicial appointments, differences in approach to pandemic prevention across a borderless country, or the willingness of some states to bankrupt others because they vote differently. That is simply not the stuff of unity. It was an interesting experiment in continental-scale federation, but it just hasn’t worked. Lasted a bit longer than Europe, now time to unwind.
Texas. It’s a Whole Other Country
Let me briefly interject. Several years ago, to amuse my Texan friends, I entertained this thought experiment. Since we’re seriously talking about secession, I reproduce it here in full:
I promised the Texans a post just for them. Others may participate, of course, because we all have to decide what our policy toward the Sovereign and Independent Republic of Texas will be. Because today, Texas seceded.
Before deciding whether that’s good or bad, I figured I’d ask my Texan friends to explain the details. I myself don’t know exactly how it happened, but I assume it went something like this: The rest of the Still-United States (SUS) couldn’t be bothered. (I doubt anyone’s thinking enough about history these days to have a strong emotion when they consider things that sound like “the South seceding.” So the SUS response was, “Whatever,” and obviously the rest of the world said, “Whatever,” too. Probably a lot of it said, “Great! Divide and conquer.” Anyway, it all went fine.)
Texans, I’ve visited your fine country more than a few times—back when it was mine, too—and frankly, I loved what I saw. As far as I’m concerned, the Sovereign and Independent Republic of Texas now has complete, total, and unencumbered political, cultural, and economic independence. Welcome to the United Nations! (I assume you want to be in the General Assembly, at least, for prestige purposes?) Anyway, congratulations. You’re the 14th largest economy in the world by GDP. You’re oil rich.
And you’re on your own.
Of course, as a foreign policy analyst, I have to think of Texas in a slightly different way. So I want to know all about you. Here are my questions for the Texans among us. If anyone else is curious, of course, jump in with your own.
Texans, I’d love to know about your political institutions. How are they similar or dissimilar to those of your neighbor to the north? Would I be correct in assuming it’s the country with the most cultural influence on you? Yours have got to be different in some really important ways, though, or no point in being independent. I assume you’ll also be influenced by your neighbor to the south. Any parts of this you’d want? Have you modeled your institutions on some other country with a better system of governance? Which? I don’t want to offend you, so tell me if you have a president, a prime minister, a congress, a parliament, proportional representation, first-past-the-post, D’Hondt system—whatever it is, of course I respect it, but I need to know, it’s my job. You’re now a foreign country; that means I have to study you and your political system. You don’t have to tell me everything, but help me out: Wikipedia’s out of date. Says you’re part of the United States. That’s why you shouldn’t believe everything you read on Wikipedia.
Are you a threat to the SUS or friendly? I figure you’re friendly, kind of like Canada: “No, really, we’re a sovereign nation. We’re Americans too, but we’re not the United States,” and everyone basically laughs and says, “That’s cute, Canada.” But I don’t want to get that wrong. Finding out you’re not friendly would be plenty embarrassing for a foreign policy analyst. So give me a hint: What’s your defence policy, basically? I’m sure you’ve thought through the problem of some idiot in the SUS waking up one day and deciding he wants to do something ridiculous like “save the Union.” I can’t imagine it in this day and age, but sovereign states have to worry about worst-case scenarios. And you’re oil-rich. So if you’re not thinking, “Someone’s going to try to invade us,” you’d be a bit loopy. Texas is anything but loopy. The Texas Department of Defense (or whatever you call it, you tell me–I want to use the right terminology) is no doubt planning for worst-case scenarios. Or in the case of an oil-rich country, “likely scenarios.”
Should I worry about a miscalculation that leads to war between the SUS and Texas? Do you have a plan for signalling to the SUS that they’d best not invade you–but not signalling it so hard that things gets out of hand and you get invaded? (I think the SUS would win, as things stand now.) In my professional opinion, it probably won’t happen, so you probably don’t need nuclear weapons. But you do need a plan: Independent, sovereign nations need long-term plans, especially with neighbors like yours. You’ve got a superpower or at least a regional hegemon to the north and lots of oil. Sounds to me like you don’t trust the SUS one bit. So what’s the plan?
What’s your immigration policy? If I want Texas citizenship, what do I have to do to get it? I don’t have Texas ancestry, alas. Do I have any kind of advantage if I have SUS ancestry? Are some SUS states better than others, in that regard?
Would I be allowed to work in Texas as a legal resident of some kind and keep my SUS citizenship? If so, would I face a lot of prejudice against Americans? Would I be dealing with a lot of unpleasant questions and suspicions about my dual loyalty? (Question for my fellow Americans in the SUS–would I get that from you?) Suppose you say I can’t keep my SUS passport if I want a Texas one. Say I decide I want a Texas passport, immigrate legally, do everything I need to get Texas citizenship, and become a Texan. Would other Americans think I was a traitor? What about non-Americans: If you’re visiting the formerly United States, do you want to get a visa both for the SUS and Texas? If it’s too much of a hassle to get both, which would you choose?
Texans, what’s your immigration policy toward Mexico? Toward other countries? How about trade policy? And this one’s super-important: What’s your currency? Do you have your own or are you still using the dollar? It’s tricky to be totally sovereign without your own currency—just ask the EU. Though not impossible—just ask France. But to do it you need to do a lot of make-believe and be highly motivated to pretend you’re independent and be independent and still kind of not be, too. It gets messy.
How about the tax regime—if I worked there and paid SUS taxes, would I get slammed with Texas taxes, too?
Americans, how do we feel about Texans who want to come to the SUS? Do we give them priority, because they used to be Americans? Or make them stand in line like everyone else? Texans, do you think you’ll want to visit America for any reason? Have you worked out this problem properly? Getting an H1B visa to work in the SUS is no joke. Have you negotiated some kind of visa-free travel regime? Problem with that is the moment the SUS gets worried that you may have a problem controlling your borders–well, fair or unfair, they’re going to stick you with the problem. I figure even one terrorist slips through the Mexican border and gets through Texas to Albuquerque–no less New York–“visa-free travel for Texans” is going to sound insane to American voters.
What’s your foreign policy, generally? Are you in NATO? I figure not. I don’t see Texas signing up for defending countries they do not want to defend. Or admitting that maybe they’d need the SUS to defend them if they got themselves in big trouble. So I’m guessing you’re not in NATO. Would I be right?
What other parts of the established sovereign state system are you aiming for? Are you aiming high? I think you should, you’re Texas–you want to be a star performer in that system, not a lone star performer. So you want a seat on the Security Council. (I’m assuming you’re definitely not interested in the UNESCO part of the UN. Don’t blame you.) Problem with that is you basically do have to nuke up to get there. I’m just not sure the SUS is going to be comfortable with that. It means you didn’t sign the NPT. So I figure that’s causing a lot of headaches in Washington. “Surgical strikes on Texas” will not sound right–at all–to anyone in the SUS, so I bet you’re right to think they’d never stop you. Just curious how it all works. Getting nuked up comes with its own hassles. You don’t have access to a lot of the Triad anymore, so if you want the whole shebang, you’re going to have to work like stink. To do it fast, you’d probably have to be on the phone with North Korea. You don’t want to get your hands that dirty or be one of those countries the Still-United States has to go all “pariah state” about. You could do it on your own, but it definitely won’t be overnight.
Next thing, obviously (you’re Texas) is OPEC. Are you a moderate in OPEC pricing policy, or will the SUS have to do some serious arm-twisting? Just curious.
You’re doing great on warm-water ports. The SUS has plenty, so of course it won’t get all fussy about yours. Enough to go around for everyone. I don’t foresee any spats about that. Just wondering which part of the Navy–if any–you kept. I assume some negotiations happened (don’t know the details, you tell me) and you kept some of it. I’m thinking you probably got to keep the Coast Guard–yours fair and square–but SUS taxpayers would have been highly unamused if you tried to make off with the expensive stuff. Lackland? Probably the SUS just flew the important stuff out (it flies, after all, that’s the point) and let you complain all you like. So I just can’t see how you kept the really expensive parts of the SUS military. You don’t want to be a small, oil-rich country without that. You could rebuild a lot of it on your own–I mean, obviously, you’ve got a few divisions of Lockheed-Martin and Boeing and Raytheon and etc. But once you go totally sovereign, you have to worry about things like whether they people working there are loyal. Total bureaucracy nightmare–background checks, security clearances. I’ll bet tons of the people who work there would have a serious dual-loyalty problem.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally pro-Texas. I love Texas. I figure if you love something, you set it free, if it comes back, it’s yours, if it doesn’t, it never was. (Either that or I’d be as berserk about the Constitution as that madman Lincoln.) But we are mature. So mature that we can even discuss this without a hint of incivility, no less a civil war.
Texas, you are free.
I’m just curious. How?
That sums up my views on the secession of any American state. If you’re thinking about it seriously, you’re a traitor, and besides, you’re just out of your mind. It cannot work.
It’s a grim sign, however, that so many Americans are now talking about this, half- seriously, even. Another friend—a Texan, as it happens; I’ll call him Elmo—sent me this email on the very same day as Deep State sent me the email above:
Texas gets tagged with the “most likely to secede” label, and many Texans are happy with the perception. But it isn’t so: all we have going for us is a nearly unique state-level political culture and history, and not much else. We don’t have defensible borders, we are reliant on commodities and trade, and there isn’t a single natural lake in the entire state. When it comes down to it, the strategic logic that led us to seek annexation by the United States in 1845 holds: We require the external resources and access. So, in this time of rapidly weakening federal bonds, with state blocs coalescing and state governors seeking to evade federal controls, it isn’t Texas at the fore.
The real secession threat is California.
California’s strategic position is superb. Flush with natural resources, easily able to self-sustain in nearly every sphere, and a de facto island: look at the population patterns, with thousands of miles of effectively uninhabited land from the hundredth meridian to Sacramento. California is nearly the only state that could go it alone, with ample trade, access to international commerce, and — this is important — independent branding.
The only element hitherto missing for California has been an alienation from the federal center. That exists now, and it quickly runs deep. So we see California setting its own standards. So we see California forming its own state-based alliance. So we see that alliance communicate to DC with its own demands.
So we see these things accrete momentum.
Let the reader understand.
Finally, Newt Gingrich took issue with my response to his views of the pandemic:
I am very disappointed in the rhetorical overkill and sophistry of your attack on my newsletter. I never object to a good argument and I love your iconoclasm and unusual ability to find unique insights.
I will simply give you one example of overkill and sophistry in your newsletter: The Imperial College 2.2 million number for potential American deaths was very widely reported in the United States. You may assume Trump did not read the report but do you also assume Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx were equally uninformed?
Furthermore, the American President, whether Franklin Delano Roosevelt or Harry Truman or the current occupant, are not normally in the business of reading detailed papers. Eisenhower insisted all decision memos be one page, which was a lesson he learned running the Anglo-American coalition in Europe during World War Two.
The response to the virus has been overkill driven by fear and focusing on only one indicator or public policy. There are counties with zero deaths in the United States being treated as if they were New York City.
Furthermore, the New York City disaster is a function of the failure of Governor Cuomo and Mayor De Blasio. Check when they began cleaning the subways every night. They to this day do not have an accurate sense of how many senior citizens their policy of returning Covid-19 patients to the nursing homes ended up killing.
Italy was a unique case driven by 100,000 Chinese workers living in northern Italy, direct flights from China and the politically correct decision to continue the flights even after the pandemic was obvious. In northern Italy they had to go to mitigation because they had lost control.
Outside of New York City, northern New Jersey, and a few hot spots, most of America resembles southern Italy, not northern Italy.
We could have coped with this virus with a lot fewer economic costs and with a lot fewer people dying from second-order effects—people dying because they were denied hospital care (most places in America never came anywhere close to exceeding their hospital capacity, yet cancer patients and heart patients were being put at risk; furthermore, the effect of prolonged isolation and economic dislocation leads to physical and mental damage, including suicide in some tragic cases.)
Anyway, I am glad I recommended your blog and I look forward to future dialogues and even diatribes.
I disagree in many points of fact and interpretation, but rather than going through things point by point, I’ll just say that if you’re keenly interested in modeling the epidemic—as we all are, I’m sure—I’ve found the following models quite useful. I imagine Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx consult them regularly, since they’re all cited by the CDC:
Columbia University (Transmission dynamics simulated for all US study counties)
Covid Act Now (Based on a traditional SEIR model)
IHME (They are now using a traditional SEIR model)
Iowa State University (Modified SEIR)
DELPHI Epidemiological Case Predictions (Another modified SEIR model)
Northeastern (here are their projections for today—they’re extremely accurate)
They all converge on a similar portrait. The only disagreement is in the details.
There are many more—at least a hundred good models came up with very similar predictions. Italy wasn’t a unique case, as anyone living in the UK, France, Spain, or Russia could assure you.
Social distancing has, so far, saved far more lives than it has cost. It’s unclear what the long-term effects will be: It is possible that the long-term economic and political costs of the economic slowdown will be even more catastrophic, but it’s too soon to say. They haven’t been, yet.
The response to the pandemic has not been hysterical. The disease is a killer. It would have cost millions of Americans’ lives had we not taken the drastic measures we did.
And many could have been saved had we taken those measures sooner.